Compelling premise, good director (Lasse Hallström), two solid performances from immensely attractive and sensitive leads. So why does Dear John, which begins promisingly, dwindle instead of build, as if focused on the wrong end of the hourglass?
My best guess is that reading the letters in a book is more emotionally powerful than hearing the actors' voice-overs, illustrated with images of them in dorm room and bunker. Hallström fails to visually connect them when they are separated.
Split-screen shots of them joined though distant, or flashbacks to their time together, might have been schmaltzy, but they would have visually underlined the connection despite separation. When Tatum and Seyfried no longer share the screen, generating heat, the movie grows as cold and lumpy as yesterday's she-crab soup.
The film has two curious subplots and supporting performances that feel tacked on rather than organically part of it.
Autism is to Dear John what Alzheimer's was to The Notebook: an impediment to the lovers' connection (as if distance weren't enough). And also a condition to which one of the characters is dedicated to improving.
John's father, played by Richard Jenkins, is a socially phobic man. Savannah suggests to John that his father may be mildly autistic. She knows a little about autism as the son of her neighbor, Tim (Henry Thomas), is diagnosed with it.
War. Duty. Long-distance loves. Socially challenged friends and family members. You watch Dear John and you stop thinking characters and start thinking plot mechanics. What's the next hurdle Sparks will place on the obstacle course of his true lovers?
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/